Some classic Memorial Day trains

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Topping the short list of passenger trains named for military figures is Chesapeake & Ohio's George Washington. Pacific 483 leads the George's Newport New section west at Hampton, Va., in 1948. Bill Taub
When it came to naming their passenger trains, railroads never lacked in imagination. Great cities, mountain ranges, Native American tribes, poetic imagery, authors and poets, state mascots, historic events, beasts and birds, the self-reverential slogan — all took turns on observation-car drumheads and in the pages of the Official Guide of the Railways.

But as I contemplated the upcoming Memorial Day weekend, it occurred to me that the American military rarely got its due. That surprises me, given our usual patriotic traditions. Yet in scouring the 1,506 pages of my June 1954 Guide, along with a seemingly comprehensive list on Wikipedia, I could only come up with a relative handful of trains named in some way for members of the armed services. 

In the spirit of Monday’s holiday — when we honor the millions of Americans who gave their lives in service to the nation — I present what I found. 

Arguably the most famous train with a soldier’s name was Chesapeake & Ohio’s flagship George Washington, which linked Washington, D.C., with Cincinnati, with extensions that included a section to Virginia tidewater and through cars to Louisville. Trains 1 and 2 were famous for being among the first to introduce air conditioning and for upholding the standard of the heavyweight passenger car deep into the streamliner era. Images of Washington the man extended throughout the train, from bulkhead posters to dining-car china. I suppose it could be argued that C&O was thinking of President Washington when they inaugurated the train in 1932, but I like to think his heroics at Trenton, Valley Forge, and Yorktown had as much to do with it. 

For Chicago, Burlington & Quincy, honoring the military apparently meant honoring its generals, two in particular. The lesser of them was the General Custer, a joint CB&Q/Northern Pacific Kansas City–Seattle/Portland train run during 1936–42. Given the disastrous fate of the Army’s enfant terrible at the Little Big Horn, maybe it’s not surprising the Custer lasted only six years. 

Far better known was the General Pershing Zephyr, a Kansas City–St. Louis train named for Gen. John J. Pershing, a native Missourian whose 38-year career in the Army encompassed a number of conflicts, most notably his command of the American Expeditionary Force of World War I.

Burlington's new General Pershing Zephyr, likely on an exhibition tour, is missing a car and far from its normal Kansas City–St. Louis route in this April 18, 1939, view at Brush, Colo. Joe Schick
The train bearing Pershing’s name was the ninth and last of the integrated streamliners descending from the original Pioneer Zephyr of 1934. Built in 1939, the Pershing Zephyr was led by the usual EMC power car and trailed by a Budd consist of cars named for Army ranks: Silver EagleSilver Leaf, and Silver Star. The power car was the Silver Charger, after Pershing’s horse. Interestingly, unlike other early Zephyrs the train was non-articulated — its cars were joined by couplers, not shared trucks. 

Another Army figure — Gen. Leonard Wood — was honored by Burlington competitor Frisco with its General Wood, which operated for a time in the 1940s between St. Louis and Springfield, Mo. The train’s name was a nod to Missouri’s Fort Leonard Wood, which opened in 1940. Wood’s circuitous career included stints as a physician, a cavalry commander in Cuba during the Spanish-America War, and a term as governor-general of the Philippines. 

Although not officially military in the strictest sense, New England’s famed Minutemen patriots were honored in two ways by the Boston & Maine Railroad, first by adopting a Minuteman theme for much of its promotional efforts, second by naming a Boston–Troy (N.Y.) train for the famed militia men of the Revolutionary War. Early on the Minute Man was promoted as a streamliner, basically with coach service, operating on an evening westbound schedule out of Boston as train 59, and eastbound out of Troy in the morning as train 52. For a time, the train ran with the hand-me-down articulated trainset of 1935’s Flying Yankee

Also operating in New England was the New Haven’s Springfield–New York Nathan Hale, named for the famous soldier and spy executed by the British in New York on September 22, 1776. He is now considered the state of Connecticut’s greatest patriot. Hale’s namesake train was not one of the New Haven’s premier operations — it was basically a backup coach-and-parlor-car train for the better-known Bankers and Connecticut Yankee — but trains 28 and 69 served an important role, running evenings eastbound out of Grand Central Terminal and back the following morning.

If there’s to be a Purple Heart for railroad train names, for my money it should go to the Pennsylvania Railroad, which always had a sharp eye for history and patriotism. The importance of military service to the PRR should be obvious to anyone who’s witnessed the magnificent Pennsylvania Railroad War Memorial at the east end of the Thirtieth Street Station concourse in Philadelphia. Designed by sculptor Walker Kirtland Hancock and installed in 1952, the monument shows a towering bronze Angel of the Resurrection bearing a lifeless soldier in his arms, PRR’s way of honoring the 1,307 of its employees who died in World War II.

However, long before the statue went up, the Pennsy saluted American soldiers with a couple of trains that, rather than glorifying generals, directly evoked the “Willies and Joes” that do all the fighting. The first was the Red Arrow, which made its debut on September 27, 1925, and was named for the Army’s 32nd Infantry Division, the celebrated Red Arrow Division of World War I, whose members were drawn primarily from Michigan and Wisconsin.

“Accounts vary as to whether it was a Detroit–Pittsburgh, Detroit–Washington, or Detroit–New York train at first,” says PRR historian Dan Cupper, “but, in any case, it was eastbound only, and after a few months it definitely became a Detroit–New York train. A westbound Red Arrow was added on September 26, 1926.”

Sadly, internet searches for the Red Arrow train invariably lead you to accounts of the infamous crash of the train on February 18, 1947, when it ran out of control down the mountain east of Gallitzin, Pa., and went around a 30-mph curve at 60 mph or more, killing some two dozen people. That’s a legacy difficult to avoid, but I prefer to think of the way the train honored the men who fought in the Marne in 1917 and at Luzon in 1945. 

The Pennsylvania didn’t stop with the Red Arrow. On April 28, 1929, it debuted the new Rainbow, a Chicago–New York train named for another gallant World War I outfit, the 42nd Infantry Division, or Rainbow Division. This time, the credit for the name goes directly to PRR railroaders. 

“It was chosen from among 30,000 names submitted by 5,000 employees,” Cupper explains. “The first to make the suggestion, a Long Island Rail Road brakeman, got a $50 prize. Others who suggested the name or part of the name got a $10 prize. The contest was said to be the first time PRR chose a train name from among employees’ suggestions.”

Alco PA 5755 strikes a heroic pose at the head of PRR's Red Arrow, named for the Army's 32nd Infantry Division, at Detroit two days before Memorial Day, 1948. Elmer Treloar
Alas, the PRR’s two “soldiers’ trains” didn’t last very long. The Red Arrow, which never competed effectively with either New York Central’s Detroiter or the B&O’s Ambassador in the same market, made its last run in 1960. The Rainbow had already closed out its run in 1951.

Of the two Army divisions, the Red Arrow was the more famous, its name now attached to numerous schools and public parks in Wisconsin and Michigan, adorning stretches of highway in both states, and proudly sung anytime a band strikes up composer Theodore Steinmetz’s “32nd Division March.”

But in terms of pertinent symbols, is there anything more heroic than PRR PA No. 5755, shown here ready to depart Detroit’s Fort Street Union Depot with the Red Arrow on May 29, 1948, just two days before Memorial Day? I don’t think so.

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